There is one thing in the life of someone who's emotionally connected to a sports franchise that feels almost as good as seeing them win. And that is being able to enjoy a win over and over again. In my life, I've been blessed with seeing the New England Patriots win 37 postseason games. That includes six Super Bowls and an astonishing 11 AFC championship games, going all the way back to the shocker that was the 1985 season.
Now that's a lot of success to have to remember. That many wins takes up a lot of terabytes in your mental hard drive. As I've said before, I published a book in September of 2018 called "Five Rings," and it was made obsolete five months later. The LaserDisc of literature. (Fortunately the publishers allowed me to update it and it's available for everyone on your holiday shopping list.) Whereas some Jets fan could've written "One Ring" in 1971, and it would be just as relevant today.
And so, when all that playoff winning starts to sort of bleed together in the mind's eye, it can be helpful for someone to say something that jars your memory. It's a sort of gift, really. It's as if they're giving you that game to enjoy all over again. Like the burp that tastes like the great meal you finished a few hours ago.
Which is why I'm grateful to Ben Roethlisberger and Jerome Bettis for handing all Pats fans this present:
In case you don't have the time or inclination to watch, allow me to summarize. Both Roethlisberger and Bettis agree that they were "cheated" by the Patriots in the 2004 AFC championship game. To help set the scene, that would be the one where Roethlisberger went into the game with a career 14-0 record as a starter. And while Bettis was nearing the end of his career, he still had 250 carries that season. The final score was New England 41, Pittsburgh 27, thanks to a last minute touchdown pass by Roethlisberger. But for all intents and purposes, it was put away halfway through the 3rd when a Corey Dillon 25-yard TD run made it 31-10. That one run accounted for 1/3 of Dillon's total yards on the day, as the Steelers' front-7 kept him bottled up all day. Most of the Pats production on the ground was Jet sweeps by Deion Branch and outside tosses to Kevin Faulk. Branach had a rushing TD and another on a reception. And the game was a laugher despite Tom Brady only going 14-for-21 through the air.
And here's the "cheating" issue, as Bettis explains it. The Steelers decided to go for it on 4th down. The signal on the sidelines was a coach rubbing his hands together, back and forth, which meant running a Counter. Upon seeing this, the Patriots called a timeout. And what struck Bettis as odd is that the one player they brought to the sidelines with was nose tackle Ted Washington. Who, at the snap, "loops into the hole" and blows up the run.
Bettis can only be talking about the play he ran on 4th & 1 from the New England 39 with 7:07 to play in the 1st. It shows up on this clip that the NFL's Imperial Video Stormtroopers will no doubt remove even though it's 20 years old. But if not, it comes at the 0:38 mark:
Eight defenders crowd the line. Mount Washington may or may not have done some looping. But Bettis ran into a wall of bodies, Roosevelt Colvin knocked the ball loose, and Mike Vrabel fell on it. One play later, the rout was on:
All of which begs the question: How was this cheating? Was there some violation of the rules I'm not aware of? Was some ethical line crossed? The coach signals in with a hand sign that the Patriots braintrust - and let's not kid ourselves, it was Ernie Adams - saw them use every time they ran a Counter. Is there a moral obligation not to tell Ted Washington what was coming? And is there another franchise in all of organized sports who'd be accused of cheating, just for being able to read the opposition's badly disguised signals?
Like I said during the Spygate hysteria, of course teams try to steal other teams' signs. That's why they have signs. You can argue about how severe an infraction it was to use a camera to record them (in the area of the stadium that's not set aside for cameras to record them). But this was just Bill Belichick's sideline looking 53 1/3 yards across a field and saying, "Oop, there it is. The hand-slappy thing. Here comes the Counter to Bettis. Call timeout and get Ted over here." And it's laughably ridiculous to think that, almost 20 years later, these two guys would be blaming it, not on their coaches being too incompetent or lazy to hide their intentions better, but on the smarter, more prepared coaches who cracked their code. After all, when it comes to codebreaking, this wasn't exact Alan Turing building the Enigma machine.
But the most important takeaway isn't that we should be angry at these old Steelers players for believing they got cheated somehow. It's that we appreciate them for bringing this back up so we can enjoy one of the great wins of the early part of the Dynasty. So thanks, fellas. Even after all these years, tears are yummy.